Worms of endearment 

You don't know how lucky you are. Having just spent a week's vacation in San Francisco, I was all set to start this column with a protracted soap-box speech calling for the reasons why we, too, can't have a thriving arts sector that's marked by diversity, targeted toward adults and conjoined by a comprehensive system of public transportation.

But the impetus for that green-eyed (and potentially benumbing) rant evaporated as soon as I made it home and found this momentous news waiting in my In box: "Fear Factor" is coming to Orlando!

Yes, "Fear Factor," the insect-chomping, denominator-lowering reality series that pits regular Schmoes against each other in contests of physical daring and gag-reflex suppression -- all for a shot at a $50,000 prize and a smidgen of exposure/ridicule on NBC-TV. The show that was pilloried in a recent issue of The New Yorker as being "ugly to look at" and constituting not entertainment, but "degradation." Hey, who says nothing good ever happens here? Not me. Not this week, anyway.

Though the program's first season is over, its producers are already planning for Round Two, which is expected to get under way early next year. And that's where O-town comes in. An all-day casting session for Season Two will be held Aug. 16 at the XS amusement facility on International Drive, allowing potential larva-munchers to put their eager faces in front of "Fear Factor"'s recruitment experts. The official call is for "energetic, enthusiastic and outgoing contestant candidates," which sounds so much nicer than "masochists."

Roundup time is 11 a.m.; attendees are asked to bring proper ID, a recent photo and a pen. A pen? To stab each other with? To swallow on command? No, to fill out the necessary application forms. Though XS boasts such amenities as a climbing wall and a roller-coaster simulator, the would-be daredevils won't be asked to perform any stunts, just sit for a few rounds of interviews and group discussions. Casting producer Mickey Glazer calls this "a totally fear-free audition." (I have some actor friends who would laugh bitterly at the very term.)

The excursion to XS is one of fewer than 10 stops on the series' national talent-scouting tour. According to Glazer, our fair city beat out Nashville, New Orleans and Miami for the honor of a visit. (Ha! In your face! In your face!) But why us?

"I just heard great things about Orlando," he says. For one, we were hailed as a "fantastic" resource by the folks who do casting chores for the MTV Beach House. Ah, praise from the praiseworthy.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that another NBC series will soon be trolling the local waters for on-air chum. Auditions for The Weakest Link will begin at 10 a.m. on Aug. 13 at the Wyndham Palace Resort. It's a big deal, too, I suppose, and should draw its own multitude of humiliation junkies. But I still say that show is so five insults ago.

Skill 'em all:

If you're disappointed that the "Fear Factor" audition doesn't call for amateur acts of derring-doo-doo, take your exhibitionist tendencies to the Human Resources building at Universal Orlando at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10, or 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 11. Again on the hunt for cast members for its annual Halloween Horror Nights presentation, Universal is this year adding a category for sideshow performers, including glass-walkers, bug-eaters, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, pierce lifters and contortionists. Said freaks and geeks will have to demonstrate their talents at the audition. So anyone interested in stepping into the role of the Rat Lady -- whose job it is to lie in a glass coffin in the company of vermin -- had better be prepared to get up close and personal with real, live rodents.

Anyone who has ever ever slept with a state senator clearly has the edge here.

Light bites:

Chalk this one up as more of a disappointment than a surprise. The SJS Entertainment musical-theater complex in Sanford has closed its doors after only six months of operation. Its principals are looking for a new host site for their production of "Guys & Dolls," which was in the rehearsal stage when the axe fell ... "Characters," the locally shot, feature-film parody of theme-park servitude [The Green Room, May 31], will be screened for the paying public Aug. 26 at Tabu ... Master artists-in-residence this fall at New Smyrna's Atlantic Center for the Arts will include filmmaker and multimedia artist Alan Berliner (whose June visit to Orlando coincided with the Florida Film Festival's showing of his latest documentary, "The Sweetest Sound") and spoken-word dynamo Saul Williams (star of the movies "Slam" and "SlamNation"). As part of the residency programs, "Slam" will be shown Sept. 23 at Maitland's Enzian Theater, with Williams and soundtrack composer Paul Miller in attendance to answer questions. A Sweetest Sound screening and Berliner Q&A will follow suit Nov. 3.

Williams' ACA residency will see him mentoring local musician/actress Amy Steinberg, who has been accepted into the program.

Marshal law:

Safety issues forced the SoulFire Traveling Medicine Show to vacate the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival's construction-ravaged digs (where the company performed the drama "Killing Time" mere weeks ago) and take up temporary residence at Maitland's Zoë & Company for its production of the dark comedy "Killer Joe," which now opens Friday, Aug. 10 -- one week later than was originally announced. Here's how Arik Basso, the festival's facilities coordinator, explains the unexpected exodus:

"When we started the renovation back in February and the fire marshals did a walk-through, it was a miscommunication on our part on what rooms were available to use and what rooms were considered not available. And then when the renovation grew, as they all do, the fire marshals did another walk-through and saw that we were doing a show. And they simply said, Ã?Oh! You can't be doing one.'"

The decree nixed a planned one-weekend extension of "Killing Time," but Basso expects SoulFire back on the festival's premises for four more shows next season. And SoulFire co-founder John DiDonna has no hard feelings for festival personnel.

"They realized this was an unfortunate incident," he says. "They literally, physically helped us move. [We] struck the set and threw it in a pickup truck."

The migratory spirit follows "Killer Joe," it seems. Not only is the show in new surroundings, but it marks the area curtain call of bodacious actress Babette Garber, who's moving to New York City after the play closes. DiDonna says Garber's swan song is appropriately feisty: "[She's playing] just a nasty, nasty white-trash woman. And she's doing a great job."

Fair enough. Now let's see her swallow a pen.

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