Although Zimmerman was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, she spent much of her childhood in Europe, splitting time between her parents' home outside London in Hampstead Garden, England, and in Paris. Both of her parents were academics at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, her father a physics professor and her mother a professor of comparative literature who studied the author George Sand.
Zimmerman studied theatre and performance studies at Northwestern University, where she received a BS in theatre (1982) in addition to an MA (1985) and PhD (1994) in performance studies. She is currently a faculty member in the Performance Studies department at Northwestern. She has earned national and international recognition in the form of numerous awards, including the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (1998). She has received more than 20 Joseph Jefferson Awards for her creative work in the Chicago Area and won a 2002 Tony Award for Best Direction for her adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Other notable productions include Eleven Rooms of Proust and The Secret In The Wings.
In 2004 she directed a production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. Her production was re-staged in 2006 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company Free For All. The following year, Zimmerman directed another Shakespeare play, Cymbeline, at Northwestern University.
Zimmerman has directed several theatrical adaptations of literary works in addition to Metamorphoses, including Journey to the West, the Odyssey, Silk, Arabian Nights (1994), and The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (2003). In 2006 she directed a version of the Greek story of Jason and the Argonauts' search for the Golden Fleece, Argonautika, at the Lookingglass Theatre Company, and then toured it at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2007 and at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. in 2008.
She has also worked in the opera world. She is the director and co-librettist of the 2002 opera Galileo Galilei, music by Philip Glass, commissioned by the Goodman Theatre. In 2007, Zimmerman directed the first of a series of new productions for the Metropolitan Opera. She was engaged to stage a new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor starring Natalie Dessay, which opened the company's 2007/08 season. The production received mixed reviews, but was a success at the box office. Zimmerman's Lucia was revived in 2008/09 with Diana Damrau and Anna Netrebko as Lucia. It was broadcast worldwide in the Met's Live in HD series with Netrebko and tenor Piotr Beczała.
In March 2009 the Met premiered Zimmerman's production of Vincenzo Bellini's La sonnambula (starring Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez). The production, which moved the opera's setting to a contemporary rehearsal hall, received mixed-to-negative reviews in the press. It was also presented in the Live in HD series. For the company's 2009/10 season Zimmerman directed a new production of Gioachino Rossini's opera Armida starring Renée Fleming. Her fourth production for the Met was Dvořák's Rusalka in 2017 to positive reviews.
In 2013, Zimmerman adapted and directed a musical version of Disney's The Jungle Book, premiering at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Huntington Theatre in Boston. The production featured Kevin Carolan as Baloo the Bear and André De Shields as King Louie.
In 2015 Zimmerman directed the musical Guys and Dolls at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
In 2017 Zimmerman directed the her adaption of Homer's The Odyssey at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.