Today’s blog focuses on Michaelle Vilsa, Spring Valley High School class of 2014. From her high school days to the present, Michaelle has always done her best work in the spotlight. Read on to learn how she’s taken her early training in the arts to new heights.
Back in her high school years, I remember Michaelle Vilsa as charming, quirky and hilariously funny. She had a quick-wit and abundant energy, making her presence well-known as soon as she walked in the room.
Michaelle loved everything about the performing arts. Refusing to partake in regular physical education class, she opted to take dance all four years, so I had the pleasure of working with her both in class and after school with Thespians.
In her early productions, she infused life and comedy into each character she portrayed, and she loved playing the musicals: Urleen in Footloose, a dopey gangster in The Drowsy Chaperone, the all-powerful and vulnerable title character in The Wiz. She always had impeccable timing and loved creating characters with dimension.
During her senior show, In the Heights, she seized the opportunity to go against type and create a different kind of role as Camilla (there’s a great story about that audition later in this blog post). She infused a quiet grace and a depth of character that made me realize that this young woman had some real potential for success in the performing arts; she fully embraced the creative process as her prime focus. Whether she would pursue the creative life was up to her, of course, but the spirit and talent was certainly there.
After graduating in 2014, she had a minor setback with college as she realized the school she had matriculated in wasn’t the right fit. So she worked for a year, regrouped, and enrolled in the prestigious Circle In The Square Theater School in 2015, right on Broadway, where she spent two years learning what it takes to have a career in professional theater, film and television. Of course, it’s one thing to have all the skills and talent: it’s another to actually live the struggling artist saga of barely eating and working three jobs while you’re trying to land your next big break.
She got her first big break in 2019, when she landed a role in her off-Broadway debut at Pips Island, which was named Off-Broadway Alliance Awards Best Family Show of 2019.
Photo Credit: Pips Island.
She performed for about a year, then made the decision to relocate to Atlanta to pursue her on-screen dreams. Of course, we make plans and the universe laughs. About a week after she moved down south, the pandemic shut the world down (more on that later).
Miles from Broadway, she is now making her plans happen. She has gotten her feet wet in a few on-screen projects, and has a small featured role in the upcoming film Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, which comes out this fall. I couldn’t be more proud to see her actively turning her dreams into reality, and actually getting paid for it. Life seems a little smoother now, having survived the upheaval of the pandemic. In June, she was profiled in VoyageATL, where she talks about the journey that brought her to Atlanta and her big transition since then.
Looking back, Michaelle described her adolescent self as a hot mess. Now that she’s on the other side of that mess, she has a sense of humor about that time in her life, recognizing her sheltered innocence then and the fact that when you go into the world, it smacks you in the face; and that’s good to grow in that regard. Through the hot mess, there was something there to form into some kind of shape.
She talked about how her teachers in Circle in the Square recognized there was a bunch of energy and they needed to know how to hone that. Energy is an understatement; her spirit radiated from her soul. Michaelle would burst into the room with that explosive energy, ready to get to work. I was very impulsive, I didn’t use many of my cognitive skills. There was a very wide-eyed quality in her approach to life.
Theater was the logical, natural channel for her to focus that abundance of energy. She reflected that what helped her to manage all the chaos, still to this day, is the process of creating. It’s just ingrained in me; it just brings me somewhere that I don’t think anyone can take me out of. She appreciated her family and the teachers who helped to level and humble her: you need people like that. She knew the personal characteristics she wanted to project to the world: kindness, humility, empathy, sympathy.
Michaelle also had the personal experience of being the child of immigrants, who came from Haiti and reminded her that they were here so she could have the opportunity to live a better life. The responsibility of elevating the family name and the expectation to be successful weighed heavily on her every day. Necessity dictated that she stay focused and goal-oriented. The combination of her perceived responsibility to her parents and her overflowing enthusiasm gave her an almost singular focus:
The arts regulated me. You never heard me talking about boys or relationships, because that wasn’t my passion.
I asked how her generally over-protective parents responded to her devotion to the arts. My parents always knew I was this expressive child…so they were happy. They acknowledged that she was different from other kids, that she was focused, and they recognized that this was something she really wanted. While they did not want her to push into the entertainment business too early (mom wanted Michaelle to enjoy her childhood), they supported her participation in school productions and ultimately the decision to pursue it as her life’s work after she turned 18.
Receiving that positive affirmation of her dreams, her drive and her talent helped to make Michaelle feel validated and empowered to follow the path she is on now. When your parents believe in you, no matter how worried they might be, it makes all the difference in the world.
An important lesson learned
Michaelle recalled the spring musical auditions for In the Heights. This was her senior show and apparently, her ego started whispering a little too loudly in her ear. Not wanting to be “typecast” in the comic relief role, she had her eyes on something more juicy and dramatic. She decided she would intentionally bomb the audition and dug her heels in about it. I don’t know why I thought in the real world you can do that.
What she didn’t expect at the time was that she would be called out on her decision.
You and Mr. Perez were like, ‘what are you doing? You can’t do that in the real world. You can’t just say I want to play this role. When you bomb an audition that’s it!’ And that stuck with me until this day. No one knows who you are when you go in that room; you show them what you have and at the end of the day the cards will play out.
Now, every time she faces and audition room, she puts her best self forward. That’s my girl. Lesson learned.
Emerging from adolescence
Now that her adult brain has kicked in, Michaelle is more thoughtful when it comes to her life choices, saving the impulsivity for her acting roles. As she was released into the “real world,” she has discovered her inner strength, her resilience to weather any storm, no matter how low she feels or how dire her situation might become. She knows how to power through when she needs to and now gives herself credit for that ability.
Life is always going to have problems, and you can’t control that. So what do you do? There is a time to weep, but there is also a time to rejoice, even if it looks bad.
In that light, if she could go back and give her high school self a message in a bottle, it would say this:
Michaelle, you’re going to go through some things; some high mountains and low valleys. Know that while you’re in the fire, if feels like you’re getting burned, you will not come out burned; you will come out refined, brighter each time. Don’t lose hope.
While she grapples with a lot of things, the one thing she worries about most is the aging process. Even at the age of 26, she understands how older women have a difficult time in the entertainment business. In addition, when she was younger, she didn’t see life past her early 20s.
I thought at the age of 20 I should have already had a movie, bought my parents a really nice home, and then get married, have a kid and die at 21. I don’t know why my brain already made that decision.
When none of that happened when she turned 21, she thought,
‘I think I’m going to die this year.’ And then 22 happened and I said ‘I’m still here! Now what?’ You see life unravel and that’s when I started realizing ‘okay, you literally live for today’ and you learn so much each year. Each year is a testament of who you are.
What she’s learned from that is to be grateful for where she is right now. Michaelle is in this artist’s life for the long haul. In the grand scheme of things, she’s still a baby, even though her quarter-life crisis makes her feel so much older.
She misses being able to look at the world with a lens of innocence, which created an almost magical environment in her youth. There was a beauty that was unscathed by the tough realities of growing up, but even now, Michaelle believes:
We can still make it beautiful; it’s not a loss. And when you make it beautiful, you’re just going to do that for the generations after you. That’s what I’ve learned: whatever I’m taking now, make that beautiful for them, because someone did that for me.
Despite sometimes yearning for the innocence of her childhood, she appreciates how learning new things now is a more in-depth, richer experience than when she was in high school.
Michaelle’s sage advice for teens
Everything will happen at its time. There’s an appointed time for everything, and nobody or anything in this world can take that away from you. It’s right there for you, you’re the only person that can execute it, so you don’t have to stress or worry so much how or when; it’s just going to happen.
I like to ask the self-care question at the end of the interview, because the business of life often leads us to forget about the most important piece of our lives: our mental, physical and spiritual health. It’s a great way to see how other people fulfill their needs and a reminder for everyone to carve out some space everyday to take a breath, empty the bucket, regulate and reset themselves. Michaelle has a few simple things she does to that end:
- I exercise everyday. It could be five minutes, just run or walk, something. It regulates the brain; helps you hone in on what you need to hone in on. Click on this link to see one of the most joyful videos I’ve seen in a long time. Michaelle knows how to tap into her inner child.
- I pray a lot. I know a lot of people meditate; I pray. I need to have that spiritual connection.
- I really limit my time on social media. I turn off all of my notifications on everything because I know that social media can take over.
Follow Michaelle’s life adventures on Instagram.